Friday, April 21, 2006

On track for a new wolf count in Wisconsin

Ryan Stutzman - THE-BEE

Phillips woman looks for sign to help DNR reach population estimate

Jane Wiedenhoeft drove slowly down a dirt road in the town of Hackett recently, looking for signs. She wasn't looking for common road signs; there aren't many of those to be seen on Cranberry Creek Road, and most of them are peppered with bullet holes. Rather, she was scouring for evidence of Wisconsin's largest carnivore – the gray wolf.

Wiedenhoeft, of Phillips, is one of five DNR staff members who do track surveys, along with a small army of more than 100 volunteers. DNR biologists collect their data at the end of every winter in order to make population estimates. The new estimate, expected at the end of this month, is expected to be higher than the 2005 estimate of approximately 450 animals. An open meeting on the 2006 estimate is scheduled for April 21 in Wausau.

"We try to be as transparent as possible," Wiedenhoeft said.

The new estimate will be particularly important this year, because the state and federal government are working on a plan to lower the protection status for wolves in the Great Lakes region. That would allow state authorities to kill problem wolves again, which hasn't happened since a federal judge issued an injunction last year. Wolf population estimates are a subject of intense interest in Wisconsin, especially among farmers and hunting groups. Many believe the DNR underestimates the wolf population, and as more and more hunting dogs and livestock fall prey to wolves, calls for lethal wolf controls intensify.

The DNR's annual estimate is based on winter counts, which does not account for spring pups. So people who argue that wolves outnumber DNR figures are probably correct, Wiedenhoeft said. At the same time, factors like the parvo virus are keeping pup survival rates relatively low, she added. Ultimately, the DNR is charged with coming up with the best possible estimate, and there's no other way to do that than scan the snow on forest roads and trails. Wiedenhoeft and the other trackers wrapped up tracking activities last month as winter drew to a close.

The ideal tracking conditions, according to Wiedenhoeft, are the morning after one-half to two inches of snowfall. And the wetter the snow the better, she said, because wet snow holds the form of a track better than dry, powdery snow. One morning in late March, when THE-BEE accompanied Wiedenhoeft on one of her last tracking surveys of the season, the snow was quickly deteriorating. Wolf tracks were difficult to come by, even though a quarter-inch of fresh snow dusted the ground.

Wolves' territories can be more than 100 square miles, so tracking is a hit-and-miss proposition even in ideal conditions. The epicenter of the Spring Creek pack, which was the subject of Wiedenhoeft's late-season tracking effort, is an enormous block of county forest and state land surrounded by highways 111, 13, and 8. The pack could be anywhere in that general area at any given time.

Fortunately, wolves leave more than tracks. We finally came upon a canine scat as big as a large dog's. The nearby tracks were inconclusive, but the scat was full of fur and bone fragments – which is a pretty sure wolf sign, Wiedenhoeft said. Later, we found a set of degraded tracks with wolf characteristics, which Wiedenhoeft said were "probable" wolf tracks. Tracking is an inexact science; a tracker's field notes are an exercise in probability based on available evidence.

Wiedenhoeft has tracked wolves for the DNR for six years. Her trade secrets aren't really secrets; she said in the absence of other signs, it's actually quite difficult to tell the difference between wolf tracks and the tracks of a large domestic dog.

Here are a few of Wiedenhoeft's tracking guidelines:

* Wolves typically travel in straight, focused lines, whereas a domestic dog is more likely to get distracted and zig-zag.

* Wolves are typically narrow-chested, resulting in a track sets that are narrower than most domestic dogs'.

* A large canine scat with fur or bone fragments in it is a very good sign, especially in the presence of a straight, narrow set of canine tracks.

* Nearby human tracks, four-wheeler tracks or snowmobile tracks decrease the probability that a set of canine tracks was left by a wolf, because it is also possible that someone was walking their dog.

Trackers are occasionally aided by radio tracking reports. DNR biologists perform routine aerial surveys to observe packs' locations and numbers. But the hard work of wolf tracking is where the rubber meets the road. For Wiedenhoeft, it's a labor of love. "It's a good thing to wake up in the morning and be happy you're going to work," she said.

THE-BEE- Phillips, Wisconsin

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